Co-sponsored by The Alliance Program, Columbia University, and the Ville de Boulogne-Billancourt
Poet, painter and photographer Liu Xia has been a noteworthy figure on the contemporary Chinese art scene for more than three decades. Today she is better known as a symbol of the Chinese government’s displeasure with her husband Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights dissident, who was a visiting scholar at Columbia in 1989 as the pro-democracy movement swept China. Though never charged or convicted, Liu Xia has been under house arrest since her husband was named for the prize and is prohibited from public exhibitions or publishing her work in China.
Liu Xia’s art, which focuses on freedom of expression and is rooted in traditional styles, has been shown only in private or on the Internet. But following a recent exhibit in France, Columbia University's Alliance Program and the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, in cooperation with the Ville de Boulogne-Billancourt, will present the only U.S. exhibition of her work.
“Her work has been banned in China since 1989, even though she was not a participant in Tiananmen and did not sign Charter 08, the liberal manifesto that triggered Liu Xiaobo’s latest and longest prison sentence, an 11-year sentence imposed in December 2009,” writes Andrew Nathan, the 1919 Professor of Political Science, in his introduction to the exhibition catalog.
Curated by French scholar Guy Sorman, a former deputy mayor of Boulogne-Billancourt who worked to get the art out of China and obtain her consent to display it, the exhibit features 26 photographs of lifelike dolls in a series of sets devised by the artist. Created by Liu Xia during the time of Liu Xiaobo’s labor reeducation in 1996-1999, the "ugly babies," as Liu refers to the dolls, are positioned in tableaux that evoke confinement and repression.
“These strangely disturbing and moving photographs reveal profound truths about today’s China,” writes Nathan, “not only in their content and style, but also in the history of their creation, suppression, and now, their exhibition abroad.”
Born in Beijing in 1959, Liu Xia was a member of the city’s rich arts scene in the 1980s when she met and fell in love with the young college professor and public intellectual Liu Xiaobo, but it was not a meeting of political minds. Liu Xia once told a journalist from Der Spiegel, “I am not politically involved. I behave as if I live in a different world. We discuss politics as little as possible at home. My husband knows that it doesn't interest me.”
An essay in the catalog by Cui Weiping delves into her disinterest in becoming involved in the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which spurred her husband to leave his post at Columbia in hopes of bridging the gap between the government and the student demonstrators. She is now Liu Xiaobo’s spokesperson to the outside world.